How to recognize the symptoms of diabetes

Type 1 and type 2 diabetes limit the body’s ability to control the amount of glucose, or sugar, in the blood. Both types of diabetes present similar symptoms, so knowing the signs of each can help a person seek immediate and appropriate care.

The two primary types of diabetes are called type 1 and type 2, with type 2 being the more common.

People with either type cannot produce or effectively use enough of the hormone insulin to process and decrease the amount of sugar in the blood. As a result, their blood sugar levels can become dangerously high.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), around 1.25 million people have type 1 diabetes in the United States. Over 29 million people have type 2 diabetes, they suggest. In 2015, diabetes was the seventh leading causing of death in the U.S.

The ADA estimate that in the same year, 84.1 million adults in the U.S. had prediabetes, or abnormally high blood sugar levels.

For type 1, type 2, and prediabetes, it is important to identify the signs and symptoms early. This can help people seek early diagnosis and appropriate treatment to avoid the condition or its complications.

Signs and symptoms

young woman looking in window
Recognizing symptoms can help a person get an early diagnosis.

Some signs and symptoms of diabetes are common in both type 1 and type 2. These general symptoms include:

  • extreme fatigue
  • feeling very hungry, even during or shortly after a meal
  • extreme thirst
  • frequent urination
  • blurred vision
  • slow healing of cuts and bruises

People may experience symptoms differently depending on the type of diabetes they have and their age.

Type 1 diabetes in infants and young children

Infants and young children are not always able to explain that something is wrong. Therefore, if they develop type 1 diabetes, a parent or caregiver may not always be aware straight away.

Some signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • urinating more frequently
  • drinking large quantities
  • increased accidents in a child who is potty-trained
  • weight loss
  • increased fatigue and general symptoms of illness

Type 1 diabetes in adults

Many people believe that only children develop type 1 diabetes, but the disease can present at any age.

Doctors may not diagnose type 1 diabetes correctly in adults, as the symptoms can be less prominent. They may also mistake the elevated glucose levels for a sign of type 2 diabetes and recommend a new diet, exercise, and medication.

When symptoms are present, they typically include:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • extreme thirst
  • frequent urination
  • blurry vision
  • slow healing of cuts and bruises

Type 2 diabetes

It can be challenging to recognize the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Some people may only discover that they have elevated blood sugar levels during a routine checkup with a doctor.

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes can include:

  • erectile dysfunction
  • irritability
  • an itching sensation
  • recurrent infections, particularly in the genitals, mouth, urinary tract, and skin
  • frequent fatigue
  • unexplained weight loss
  • a dry mouth
  • numbness or burning in the feet


Importance of recognizing early symptoms

senior man with chest pain
Early treatment of diabetes can help prevent stroke and heart disease.

The earlier the diagnosis of diabetes, the sooner treatment can begin. It is essential that people with either type of diabetes regulate their blood sugar levels to avoid hyperglycemia.

Hyperglycemia is the medical term for high sugar levels in the blood. It can occur if people with diabetes do not manage their condition or are unable to adhere to their treatment plan.

Without treatment, hyperglycemia can be life-threatening. This is because it causes a buildup of ketones, which form as a byproduct when the body breaks down fat for fuel. A life-threatening buildup of ketones is called ketoacidosis. This issue can cause:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • shortness of breath
  • an extremely dry mouth
  • fruity-smelling breath

Early detection and treatment of type 1 and type 2 diabetes can also help people avoid other serious health complications later in life. These include:

Causes

In type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas responsible for the production of insulin. This often begins to occur in children and adolescents.

When the immune system attacks these cells, the body cannot produce enough insulin to process and regulate blood sugar. As a result, people with type 1 diabetes require lifelong insulin in addition to other therapies and lifestyle changes.

People with type 2 diabetes either do not produce enough insulin or their body does not utilize sugars correctly.

Excess sugar can build up in the bloodstream and cause the same severe health conditions that type 1 diabetes can.

Type 2 diabetes typically develops in older adults, but it can affect younger people, too.


Risk factors for type 2 diabetes

It may be possible for some people to prevent type 2 diabetes by making lifestyle changes.

However, certain people have a higher risk of developing this condition. Being aware of these risk factors may give people the opportunity to take preventative action.

According to a 2014 paper, risk factors for type 2 diabetes include:

  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • gestational diabetes, which develops during pregnancy
  • hypertension, or high blood pressure
  • being over the age of 35
  • a family history of diabetes
  • a waist size of over 31.5 inches for females or 35.5 inches for males
  • being overweight or obese

Diagnosis and treatment

teenage boy being tested for diabetes by doctor
A doctor can test for diabetes by checking a person’s blood sugar levels.

Only a doctor can diagnose diabetes. They will typically do this using a blood test. If the test reveals high blood sugar levels, the doctor may ask about any other symptoms that a person is experiencing.

If there are no other symptoms, the doctor may need to do a follow-up test to confirm a diabetes diagnosis.

The treatment for diabetes depends on its type. A person with type 1 diabetes will need to take insulin, which they can do using a variety of methods, including injections, pumps, and inhalers. There are also different types of insulin, including fast-acting and slower-release insulin.

A person with type 2 diabetes may not require insulin treatment. Instead, they might be able to use different medications and make lifestyle changes to help control their blood sugar levels.

People with type 1 or type 2 diabetes should always follow the treatment plan that their doctor recommends or prescribes. However, anyone who experiences side effects or other issues should speak to their doctor about possible changes to the plan.

With the right treatment, diabetes may not lead to further health complications.


Summary

Understanding the signs and symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes can help a person begin treatment at an earlier stage. The sooner a person starts managing the condition, the better their chances of avoiding long-term health complications.

Anyone who is concerned that they or their child may have diabetes should visit a doctor to check their blood sugar levels and determine whether or not they have this condition.

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